Mental health an ‘invisible emergency’-Doctors Without Borders

Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called attention on mental health as an invisible emergency. 


Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sees another emergency that needs attention: mental health.

All over the world, many people are reporting feelings of anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people are fearful of catching the virus. Others might be worried about getting treatment. Aside from fears over the virus, many people are scared and anxious about other things related to the pandemic, from losing their jobs or freedom of movement, to loneliness over being unable to see family or friends for so long.

In one way or another, the pandemic has touched everyone.

What is mental health, and why is it so important?

Mental health is a state of well-being in which a person is able to cope with the regular stresses of work and home life and is able to make a contribution within their community (World Health Organization).

Being mentally healthy is about more than just the absence of specific mental health conditions. Mental health is based on biological, psychological and contextual factors––being healthy in the way we think, feel, and relate to others and our environment.

Also read: MSF: Tuberculosis remains a global health emergency amid pandemic

Mental health conditions—which include depression, anxiety, substance use disorders (including alcohol) and psychoses—can be highly disabling, affecting people’s functionality and capacity to live fulfilling lives. These conditions are also associated with increased mortality: World Health Organization (WHO) figures report that worldwide, 800,000 people die from suicide every year.

In the places where Doctors Without Border work, we see patients who have lived through violence or natural disasters, whose survival goes beyond ensuring physical wellbeing. Even after their physical injuries have been treated, hidden psychological wounds can remain.  This is why the provision of holistic medical care, which includes mental healthcare, is essential in many of our projects.

What are we doing about mental health in the pandemic?

In different kinds of emergencies, the mental health needs are as important and as urgent as physical medical needs.

“With the stress we face today, the usual coping mechanisms were not enough,” said Lyka Lucena, Doctors Without Borders mental health social worker.

Abdul is 16 years old, from Sittwe in Rakhine. He fled to Malaysia in February 2019, arriving in Malaysia on 16 April, so is still trying to find his feet in a new place. 

In India, Doctors Without Borders is reaching out to COVID-19 patients over the phone, to help them manage their anxiety and their worries while they’re isolating. In Lebanon, our numerous patients who seek psychological help suffer from depression, anxiety or despair. In Bangladesh, our teams provide mental healthcare to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, including individual mental health consultations for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. These challenges are exacerbated by the difficult situations in which people find themselves during the pandemic, whether they are refugees in Kenya or domestic workers in Hong Kong.

In some places, we have to take an extra step to make sure the people who need it most get the mental health care they need. One such example is Malaysia, where there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them from Myanmar, many of them Rohingya. “On top of the existing struggles of living as a refugee in Malaysia, the secondary impact of this COVID-19 pandemic further compounded the already vulnerable mental health condition of this community,” said Sarah Chou, mental health activity manager.

In 2020, to reach the Rohingya refugees online, Doctors Without Borders worked with R-vision, an online media network in the Rohingya language. We covered COVID-19 prevention measures, explained handwashing, isolation and how people could make their own masks. We also dedicated a video to mental health, reflecting on how people could support each other during the outbreak.

In 2020 alone, Doctors Without Borders conducted a total of 349,500 individual mental health consultations.

What can you do about your own mental health?

Due to the pandemic, countless people are facing challenges that can be stressful and overwhelming which may contribute to strong emotions. Many are suffering in silence for fear of stigma and repercussions.

In conjunction with the World Mental Health Day, Doctors Without Borders is hosting a panel discussion and workshop to talk about mental health issues, and to share tips on how to improve one’s mental wellbeing.

Register now for a conversation on mental health, with Doctors Without Borders and our experts.

To learn more about our work on mental health, visit

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